You may not have heard of Yoani Sánchez, but the outspoken Cuban blogger has interviewed Barack Obama and been named to Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Her blog Generación Y, often critical of Cuba’s communist regime, is translated into 15 languages. “Your blog provides the world a unique window into the realities of daily life in Cuba,” Obama told Sánchez during their interview in 2009, which had to be conducted via e-mail because Cuban authorities refused to let Sánchez leave the country.
But since Raúl Castro took over as president from his ailing brother Fidel five years ago, Cuba has gradually started liberalizing some of its more repressive laws, including travel restrictions. After twenty unsuccessful applications, Sánchez was finally granted a passport earlier this month. Last week, she embarked on a world tour that will take her to Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic, among other destinations.
But her trip did not get off to an auspicious start: In Brazil, which has long enjoyed warm relations with Cuba’s government, angry protestors greeted Sánchez at the airport in Recife, chanting slogans like “Viva Fidel” and “Yoani, sold to the Yankees,” according to a report in the British newspaper The Independent. One protestor pelted the Cuban with dollar bills.
“Now the reality is that Yoani represents the ‘one percent’ of the population in Cuba,” Vivian Mendes, leader of the Sao Paulo Movement of Solidarity with Cuba, told the Brazilian news website UOL. “[But] the great majority of the Cuban people are in favor socialism, and want it to deepen.”
The reaction on Twitter was similarly mixed. “Only left-wing neo-Nazis would ambush Yoani Sánchez in a Brazilian airport with protests,” wrote one tweeter. Another tweeted this picture of Sánchez and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange with the caption: “Freedom of expression made in the USA.”
You can shout all you want
For Sánchez, the demonstration made for a welcome change, despite its hostile tone.
“At the arrival many friends were welcoming me and other people yelling insults,” she tweeted to her 428,000 followers. “I wish it would be the same in Cuba. Long live freedom!”
On the popular Brazilian television news show “Entre Aspas” (“Between Quotation Marks”), the journalist Sandro Vaia explained that two competing conspiracy theories exist about Sánchez: the first holds that she is a CIA agent, advancing an anti-Castro narrative on behalf of the U.S. The second implausibly maintains that because she has not yet been jailed, Sánchez must actually be a double-agent working for Cuba, her existence perhaps proof to outsiders of the country’s liberalization.
In reality, added the show’s other guest, Breno Altman, Sánchez is just a regular Cuban who writes about the difficulties of living in a repressive communist country. So far she has evaded arrest, he argues, because her blog is blocked in Cuba and has very little impact on local politics and opinion, despite its global appeal.
Sánchez, too, wrote that her opponent’s claims were laughable.
“All [the protestors] had, for example, the same document — printed in color — with a pack of lies about me, as Manichaean as they were easy to refute in a simple conversation” she wrote on her blog. “They repeated an identical and hackneyed script, without the least intention of listening to any reply I could give them. They shouted, interrupted, and at one point became violent, and occasionally launched a chorus of [pro-communist] slogans that even in Cuba are no longer said.”
Leftists in Brazil have long had sympathy with Castro and Cuba. Brazil was one of the first countries to recognize the Castro government as legitimate in 1959. Two years later, Brazilian president Jânio Quadros bestowed the prestigious Order of the Southern Cross on Ernesto “Che” Guevara. A right-wing military coup in 1964 led Brazil to cut ties with Cuba, but relations were resumed after a democratic restoration in 1986.
Today the relationship between Brazil and Cuba remains strong. Brazil’s current president Dilma Rouseff visited the island last year, promising closer economic ties. Sánchez, meanwhile, continues her journey in Brazil. She plans to give a speech at the Freedom Tower in Miami, Florida in April.